Buzz Williams said at last year’s media day that he studies zone offenses for an entire month in the offseason. He’s done this each year in an attempt to improve his team’s play in an area he faced often in the Big East. Once known as a 3-point shooting, guard-oriented group, Williams has found — perhaps perfected — balance within his roster to best ready his team for whatever defense his offense may encounter.
And while few can argue his success through five seasons as a game coach — his game plan in last year’s NCAA Tournament against both Butler and Miami (FL) was impeccable — as well as his progression, zone offenses have been a liability under Williams. Worse, his teams haven’t shown improvement over the last four seasons, dating as far back as Synergy allows.
Whether the book is out on Williams or opponents’ characteristics justify it, teams are playing more defense against the Golden Eagles every year. 2012-13 saw an outlier of sorts, as Marquette’s 3-point shooting was uncharacteristically bad, yet the numbers don’t lie: Williams’ zone offense must improve. In 2009-10 it ranked in the 86th percentile of all NCAA teams; last season it ranked in the 39th percentile.
There’s no denying Marquette’s competition will lessen in 2013-14 when Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and Connecticut depart and Creighton, Xavier and Butler enter the Big East. That really has no bearing on how good or bad Marquette’s zone offense will be — if it’s better, it’s better; if it’s worse, it’s worse — but the numbers may improve against new defenses and in the absences of others.
Last year the Big East included four of the top 30 zone defenses, based on points-per-possession-against (min. 100 possessions). Leading the way, no surprise, was Syracuse. The Orange played zone 93 percent of the time last season, and ranked 10th in the country, allowing just 0.712 points per possession. Marquette played Jim Boeheim’s suffocating zone defense twice last season, and they also faced Pittsburgh (16th) in a home-and-home set. Connecticut and Louisville’s terrific zones played against Marquette once, meaning the Golden Eagles played the top-30 zones six times last season, which very well could have contributed to the lower numbers.
Because of graduations and transfers, rosters will look different this season than they did the last. Still, schemes likely will stay in tact and the head coaches — minus Butler’s Brad Stevens — will coach and draw up their defenses the same as they did in 2012-13. With the three new teams comes three new defenses, and based on Marquette’s woes against zone looks, the Golden Eagles are sure to see some form of something other than man-to-man. Here’s how those teams played last season outside of man-to-man.
It’s worth noting that Butler played zone just 2.9 percent of the time, while Creighton did so on just 92 tracked possessions (3.9 percent) last year. Even Xavier only played zone on 7.1 percent of possessions, so it’s not as if these are struggling defenses. Rather, they’re smart teams that play to their strengths. Still, as it stands, zone defense won’t be an issue, at least on the surface. If Marquette’s former Big East opponents exaggerated Marquette’s below-average numbers, its new ones may under-exaggerate it. There won’t be as much resistance.
Backtracking before looking ahead, there was really one main cause of Marquette’s zone struggles the last two seasons. Junior Cadougan has since graduated and is currently playing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ Summer League team, but the last two seasons were nothing to write home about against zone defenses.
Cadougan was never a scorer, so his NCAA ranks on points per possession aren’t that much of a surprise. Assists alone aren’t tracked on Synergy, but the turnover percentages were notably higher — and far too high as is — against zones. Even with zone-busters in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder in 2011, and Vander Blue and Davante Gardner last season, Cadougan’s struggles didn’t allow for the Golden Eagles to succeed. 3-point shooting was a major issue last season, and that surely contributed, but Cadougan turning the ball over and shooting such a low percentage wouldn’t allow for the zone offenses to even begin.
Now that he’s out of the fold, however, the problem doesn’t automatically fix itself. Of the question marks Williams is facing in 2013, the man who replaces Cadougan may be the biggest. In terms of how the zone offense is fixed, the presumed starter, Derrick Wilson, hasn’t shown much in two seasons. Granted, his minuscule number of possessions is not a large enough sample size to conclude anything, but here’s what we have:
Wilson’s overall turnover rate as a sophomore was 23.7 and 24.7 as a sophomore. Though his zone-to-man numbers were even in Year 1 and he progressed a hair (in more minutes) in Year 2, he was far worse against zone defenses. If Marquette is looking for its zone buster as a point guard, the verdict is still out on whether or not Wilson can be the guy. Then again, the reigns are now his and it’s possible Williams sees a new-look point guard when the season begins.
Derrick isn’t the only Wilson in the picture, however. Freshman Duane Wilson enters the fold in 2013 with plenty of credentials to his name, notably back-to-back state championships and a consensus top-50 ranking. He’s got the 3-point shooting down pat — he shot 55 percent from beyond the arc as a high-school senior — but noted that he needs to work on his skills as a pass-first point guard; right now he’s more of a two-guard who can make plays on the break.
Williams will work with his two point guards — John Dawson theoretically could enter the mix as a third — while he studies his own zone offenses. The competition will not be as steep with the Syracuses and Connecticuts of the NCAA world out of the picture. If Williams can get marked improvement out of either of his Wilsons, numbers may improve on otherwise less-than-stellar zone numbers.